Nineties men showing young guns the way


ALLIANZ FOOTBALL LEAGUE:An ever decreasing band of durable brothers are still lacing up their boots

Soon after half-time in Mullingar last Sunday, Westmeath were taking on water faster than they could find buckets for the bail-out. Already playing with 14 men, they’d watched Louth not only send Paddy Keenan into the fray but extend their lead to five points into the bargain.

It was time. As the newspapers had it the following day: D Dolan for P Bannon, 42 mins.

Straight away, Dessie Dolan gave the Westmeath side a bit of shape and a sprinkling of class any time he got on the ball. He scored a point himself in the course of a comeback that warmed the home crowd and by the time two late John Heslin frees split the posts, Westmeath had a one-point win to their name. A thumping good league hour, the sort that gets the blood up as you head for the cars and that everyone has forgotten by teatime.

“We had a great game against Louth,” Dolan says. “An absolute battle. We had a lad sent off after 20 minutes and were losing by a good few points so it was nice to get on and get involved. That’s a young team we have in Westmeath at the minute and it was great to be able to help them.”

Help them? At this stage, surely it should be the other way around. As handy as his youthful good looks are in getting him on the telly, Dolan is one of the longer-toothed players to be togging out in the league this year. Indeed, he is one of a select group of footballers still plugging away having first laced a boot at senior level in the 1990s.

Ah, the ’90s. To some of Dolan’s young team-mates, it must seem like the days of black and white. A fair portion of them were born in that same decade as he made his debut. Does he remember it? Damn right he does.

“Scored 1-6 up in Casement against Antrim in November 1998. I should have given up after that first game. It was all downhill after that first one, that was the problem. Sure they nearly have Casement redeveloped now. They’ll have it done by the time I give up!”

Longest lasting

Dolan isn’t quite the longest lasting of the flames that were lit back then – Sligo’s Eamonn O’Hara has been on the go since 1994 and still hasn’t officially called time (although it’s looking increasingly to be the case that Kevin Walsh might have done it for him).

And if Dermot Earley manages to drag himself back into action at some point this year, his will be a career that’s been on the go since 1997. Of the players who’ll be togging out this weekend, Tomás Ó Sé has the whip hand over the rest, his Kerry debut coming in July 1998 in a Munster semi-final against Cork. Started at the top, stayed at the top.

All in all and as best we can make out, there are 13 players still active in intercounty football who’ve been playing since the ’90s.

Some are fighting their way back from injury – Paul Barden of Longford hopes to see some league action, while Derry’s Paddy Bradley has the championship opener against Down on June 2nd in his sights. Cork goalkeeper Alan Quirke is stationed in Lebanon with the Defence Forces until April and intends to be back for the summer. But for the most part, they’re still there, still completely relevant.

Johnny Doyle left the headlines to Kildare’s younger players last Saturday night against Donegal but even grading him on a steeper curve than the rest, he was still the best player on the pitch.

Pauric Clancy’s reimagining as a targetman full forward continued for Laois with two points and plaudits from all around. Dick Clerkin pinged a couple of his own from midfield in Monaghan’s surprise undressing of Meath in Clones.

And for the second game in a row, Stephen O’Neill was at his timeless, matchless best for Tyrone, scoring three points and standing out from all around him.

Debut in 1999

“I didn’t consider not coming back this year,” says O’Neill, a ’90s man by the skin of his teeth, having made his debut against Kerry in November 1999. “Not at all. I’m enjoying my football and looking forward to the year. We got through last weekend well enough. We’re only coming up after a few seasons in Division Two and even in just that one game you could see the difference in intensity and quality.”

You would imagine there’d be a lot of goalkeepers who’ve hung around since back then but only Quirke and Cavan’s James Reilly have that kind of longevity. And in Reilly’s case, again it’s just about and no more. “I’m not 100 per cent sure but my first game was either against Monaghan or Waterford,” he says. “I know we lost, anyway.”

He’s right. It was Monaghan and they did lose. It was October 31st, 1999 and the Monaghan team that lined out had six debutants, one of whom was Clerkin at wing forward.

The pair of them meet again tonight in the very same ground, 14 years, a few months and a lot less hair later.

“I found it a wee bit harder to come back this year, alright,” says Reilly. “My wife’s after having a baby there in September and work is very bad at the minute. I’m a bricklayer by trade and there’s really been nothing going for a long time around here. I’m still on the look-out for work and I’d go anywhere to do it if it was going.

“So it was 50-50 really whether I’d come back again for another year. But I suppose once you give the commitment, you have to go at it 100 per cent. It’s hard going off to training and leaving the baby at home but you just go and do it. It’s what you love doing.”

Walked away

In Longford tomorrow, Dolan will start his first league game since the end of the 2011 campaign. His adventure with Garrycastle made 2011 last for 15 months. When it was over, he decided his football career would go on for longer if he walked away from it for a while.

So last summer, he and his wife took off and travelled and left the whole thing behind them. That stint off the bench last Sunday was a small taste; now he wants the good stuff.

“I’m going to be starting this weekend against Longford. That would get you going, you know? A local derby against players we know so well at this stage. If you ever wonder what it is keeps players coming back and keeps them ticking over year after year, it’s this kind of game.”

Has been since forever ago.

Veterans Defying the march of time

Still playing senior intercounty football after starting in the 1990s

Dermot Earley (Kildare)

Debut v Meath – Leinster SFC, July 6 1997

Tomás Ó Sé (Kerry)

v Cork – Munster SFC, July 5, 1998

Dessie Dolan (Westmeath)

v Antrim – NFL, November 1, 1998

Paul Barden (Longford)

v Carlow – NFL, November 1, 1998

John Galvin (Limerick)

v Cork – Munster SFC, June 20, 1999

Graham Canty (Cork)

v Kerry – NFL, October 30, 1999

Johnny Doyle (Kildare)

v Down – NFL, October 31, 1999

Paddy Bradley (Derry)

v Mayo – NFL, October 31, 1999

James Reilly (Cavan)

v Monaghan – NFL, October 31, 1999

Dick Clerkin (Monaghan)

v Cavan – NFL, October 31, 1999

Pauric Clancy (Laois)

v Tipperary – NFL, October 31, 1999

Stephen O’Neill (Tyrone)

v Kerry – NFL, November 11, 1999

Alan Quirke (Cork)

v Donegal – NFL, November 28, 1999

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